Tag Archives: crime

Gangland by Tony Thompson

I’ve read Tony Thompson’s books on crime before. They are always marketed in a low-brow tabloidy way but are brilliantly written. They are gripping and informative: basically, my definition of the perfect nonfiction book. One technique he always uses is to bring his personal experience into the writing. In Gangs – an earlier book – he describes getting high on crack cocaine and heroin, and in this book he recounts almost getting beaten up by bouncers whilst pursuing an interview, and selling drugs in Camden. This could be annoying, but done with restraint and a bit of self-deprecation – as Thompson does – it adds a real thrill to the ride. (The most amusing story is getting arrested by police for firearms he’d bought over the internet. He arrives home one morning to find a police squad searching his flat:

“The living room is a sea of chaos. There are papers and clothes and books and boxes everywhere. It is as though a tornado has torn through the place, destroying everything in its path. It is exactly as I’d left it the night before.“)

There are many interesting parts to the book (the chapter on how important mobile phones are in prison was particularly eye-opening – it includes a story of one con who had to go to hospital to have a bit of his rectum removed, after hiding a phone up his bum during a routine room inspection) but one little note stood out because it confirmed something in another book I’d read recently.

In Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, in one chapter titled ‘Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?’ the authors look at how many drug dealers make little money. Drug dealing – like music or film – is a glamour industry: a few people at the top earns piles of money supported by scores of ambitious younguns who’ll do anything to make it big. In the book Thompson cites a  Joseph Rowntree study that gives the example of two runners, employed by a relative who had to sell 200 bags of heroin and 200 rocks of crack a week between them to earn £150 a week. As Thompson notes:

“considering how often teenagers protest they have no choice but to work the streets because ‘it’s better than flipping burgers in McDonald’s’, a sixteen-year-old working a forty-hour week at the fast-food chain would actually take home £163 after deduction of tax and national insurance”

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McMafia – Misha Glenny

We live in the era of globalization. The shift from national to international in business, politics and ideas, over the last twenty years has defined this period of history, and we have got used to living in a global economy in which businesses, captial flows, and jobs flow across national borders.

But did you know about the  global shadow economy?

This is what Misha Glenny’s book is about. The international shadow economy is big – according to figures from the IMF, World Bank and other research organisations, it accounts 15-20 per cent of global turnover – and yet we know little about it.

Obsession with Al-Qaeda and terrorism has blinded us to a bigger story. As Glenny points out, “in terms of the death and misery caused, terrorism is primitive and relatively insignificant”.

International crime is now global and spreads across national border much like Shell, Nike or McDonalds. Hence the title: McMafia.

From this starting point, Misha Glenny takes us on global tour of crime. We go from country to country, from internet crime in Brazil to smuggling in East Europe. The chapter I’m in the middle of at the moment is about the Japanese yakuza.

I am familiar with the popular image of the Yakuza from when I lived in Japan. Every now and again, in parts of Tokyo, or around the red light district of Fukuoka, they’d be pointed out to me. I kept my distance but I had heard of their enormous and intricate tattoos and the missing pinkies, taken to pay for an error or misdemeanor.

Misha Glenny explains the yakuza’s involvement in the bubble that built up in the 1990s, their ties to big business and so on, but the part that is most fascinating is his exposition of the their semi-legitimate relationship with Japanese society.

Until changes in the 1990s, the various yakuza groups would have publicly registered head offices, complete with signs and receptionists. Although that has since been clamped down on, they still exist in a bizarre semi-legal relationship with the state. Whilst technically illegal, every year the groups submit their membership details to the police. (Can you imagine burglars and muggers registering every year with Scotland Yard?) When Glenny meets his guide though guide to the Japan underworld, the guide explains he is the sixth-generation oyabun of the Yamaguchi-gumi. “This is like having a lawyer in the US who introduces himself breezily as Lawyer to Don Antonio Soprano of the New Jersey Mafia Corporation.”

This lawyer explains how the yakuza‘s rise to power all started with a misguided government policy after the war.

The key date was 1949. In that year, in an effort to discourage litigation which conflicted with the Japanese idea of wa (harmony), the government ruled that only 5000 students could graduate from the Legal Research and Training Institute in Tokyo every year. This has had a dramatic effect on the number of lawyers in Japan. By the late 1990s, whereas Britain had one lawyer for every 656, and the United States one for every 285 citizens, in Japan there was one lawyer for every 5,995 people.

Because the more lucrative option for these lawyers was to go work for big companies, few were left to represent ordinary members of the public. Into this vacuum stepped the yakuza.

The lawyer to the Yamaguchi-gumi explains: “If anybody went to court in order to get a debt paid, it would take an eternity and, if judgement was finally passed down in a case, it often resulted in nothing. The yakuza are able to offer a much quicker solution to the problem”.

The yakuza became a privatised police force. They expanded into any number of areas: business disputes, security, insurance, and property development.

A brilliant example of the law of unintended consequences.

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